The Sorrow and the Pretty

Model Alliance looks to empower the really, really ridiculously good-looking

On a rainy Wednesday evening in the middle of June, Sunshine Cinemas was bright with flashing bulbs as photographers snapped pictures of a gaggle of impossibly tall, impossibly beautiful women. The angelic onslaught was not a coincidence: They were all there to see a special screening of Girl Model, a documentary by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon that was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Girl Model follows a 13-year-old Siberian girl who wins a modeling competition and is whisked off to Tokyo, where a modeling agency has promised her fame and fortune.

The documentary paints a grim, Dickensian portrait of the unpleasant, exploitative working conditions endured by some the world’s most attractive people; the situation depicted is not at all uncommon, and the audience, made up of dozens of models—blondes, brunettes, the occasional redhead—was rapt.

After the credits, French model Rachel Blais addressed the room. Her struggles are featured in the film, and she has become a spokesperson for better treatment for fashion models, traveling to screenings and other speaking engagements. Because of her outspokenness, she noted, she is now treated like a pariah.

“I was dropped by my French agency, by my American agency … everyone dropped me after the movie came out,” Blais told the crowd. “The only reason my Canadian agency kept me on was because I appeared on TV so much they couldn’t drop me without drawing attention. But I haven’t worked in six months.”

This is the less-than-glamorous side of the modeling world, and it’s increasingly coming to mainstream attention: Behind the Photoshopped editorials and heavily made-up surfaces, the industry still relies on unsafe, exploitative labor practices and a desperate workforce of scared young women.

That, anyway, is the allegation put forth by the Model Alliance, which hosted the Girl Model screening. Facing down an industry mired in secrecy and reluctant to change, the 7-month-old advocacy group has nonetheless won a series of small victories. As yet another New York Fashion Week comes to a close, the women behind the Model Alliance are hopeful the group might become the “in thing” this season.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average income for a model in America in 2010 was $32,920 a year, and although that might seem like a reasonable rate for standing around all day, consider that that is the average salary of all 1,400 registered models. The bottom 10 percent earn approximately $9.53 per hour, while the few supermodels (those who are left, anyway) skew the numbers. In 2011, the combined total of the top 10 highest-paid supermodels, according to Forbes, was just under $100 million. Almost half of that number was earned by No. 1 on the list, Gisele Bündchen.

Of course, that figure only accounts for models who report their income properly—not those, like Girl Model’s Nadya, who have been told to lie about their age or have conditional work visas and aren’t going to be filing taxes anytime soon.

Not only is the pay meager and often late, very few employers offer models overtime. Since they are essentially freelance contractors, they aren’t provided with health insurance. Subtract out of their pay the standard 20 to 25 percent fee per gig that goes to a model’s agency, plus another 20 percent finder’s fee the agency collects from the model’s employer, as well as repayment of any advances the agency fronted, for instance, to put up young models in one of those infamously cramped ghetto colonies known as model incubators: three bunk-beds in a room, six girls in an apartment, $1,600 each for rent. Often, models end up in debt to the very people who are supposed to be making them money.

This assumes they get paid at all. In early March, 17-year-old Hailey Hasbrook complained on her Tumblr that she had worked 30 unpaid hours, some of them very late at night, in preparation for Marc Jacobs’ Fall 2012 Fashion Week show. Her post was picked up by women’s blog Jezebel, sparking outrage. Even more galling was Jacobs’ brand’s matter-of-fact response—via Twitter: “Models are paid in trade [meaning free designer clothing]. If they don’t want to work w/us, they don’t have to.”

The Council of Fashion Designers—which elected Marc Jacobs to its board five months earlier—had recently released its annual health initiative, strongly recommending that models under 16 not be hired for shows and that fittings never go past midnight. And industry guidelines aside, it is illegal under New York Labor Laws for children under 17 to work past 10 p.m. while school is in session.

Despite this flap—and in contradiction of the guidelines—Jacobs’ show included two 14-year-old models, Ondria Hardin and Thairine Garcia, who walked down the runway sporting giant, face-concealing hats and swallowed up in layers of coats and wraps. He told The New York Times, “I do the show the way I think it should be, and not the way somebody tells me it should be.”

Of course, he can say that because he knows there are plenty of young women who will accept whatever terms he sets—and never breathe a word about it. In 2004, when a class-action lawsuit was brought against 10 of the biggest fashion agencies, including Elite, Next, Wilhelmina and Ford, for price fixing, the agencies decided to settle to the tune of nearly $22 million, to be divided among “models who have or had a written or oral contract with one of the Settling Defendants.”

One problem: In the end, the court couldn’t find enough models to step forward and receive the money.

Either not enough of them knew about the lawsuit to cash in, or most of the wronged parties decided that stepping forward wasn’t worth the risk to their reputations in the industry. In the end, several million dollars went uncollected. It was donated to, among other charitable causes, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center’s Eating Disorders Program.

That climate of fear also explains why the Model Alliance promises to protect its members’ identities while speaking on their behalf.

According to its mission statement, the Model Alliance aims to provide a “platform for models and leaders in the fashion industry to organize to radically improve the conditions under which models work.” They provide services to members who have been sexually or otherwise abused, and have teamed up with the Actors’ Equity Association and the American Guild of Musical Artists to offer a “free and discreet” reporting service to put models in touch with labor attorneys and union leaders who can advise them on workplace-related issues.

The organization’s long-term goals—put forth in a Bill of Rights—include an overhaul of the fashion industry’s labor practices: provisions for health insurance, proper immigration status, negotiable commissions, harassment-free workplaces, age-limit enforcements and clearer financial contracts for working models. The group is not a union, founder Sara Ziff is quick to point out, but an advocacy group.

Ziff, a tousled blonde who has walked the runway for Prada and graduated summa cum laude from Columbia, has partnered with Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute and filled the nonprofit’s advisory board with prominent mannequins such as Coco Rocha, Milla Jovovich and Shalom Harlow.

“It’s important to get the right message out there,” Ziff insisted. “It’s not about finger-pointing, or saying that this agency is bad or this client is bad. You need to give people the chance to do the right thing. It’s easy to blame, but there have been no standards. The way you get results is by sitting down with them at the table and encouraging them to improve their business practices.”

Support for the Alliance is stronger than ever, but it remains quiet. Even the donors are anonymous: Ziff told The Observer that one big-name model had donated an impressive amount when they began their organization, but only on the condition of anonymity. Supermodels whom the Alliance has reached out to, such as Cindy Crawford and Tyra Banks, have been hesitant to throw their full support behind what would seem like a no-brainer cause, possibly for fear of industry retribution. Banks told us she had been contacted by Rocha about the project and expressed interest in its goals, but added, “I’ve been so crazy lately, I haven’t had time to really look at the group yet.”

Jenna Sauers, a model-cum-Jezebel blogger who serves on the Model Alliance board (and has also written for The Observer), told us about her own experience in the industry. Sauers, a New Zealand-born beauty, began as a child model for department-store catalogs at 13, then took three years off. When she returned to the game at 16, she found herself in an entirely new business.

“Going from child modeling to adult modeling—which is a funny term, because it’s basically dressing kids up as adults—there was a new level of, ‘Well this seems slightly odd, but I guess I’ll go with it because all the adults around me are acting like it’s totally normal,’” she said. “Like the fact that once you hit 25, you’re considered ancient. It’s like Logan’s Run.” (Sauers is 26.)

Sauers explained that the modeling business operates behind a very well-established scrim of secrecy to protect shady business practices. “The fashion industry has been so skittish about embracing public attention on anything other than its own, very well-defined terms for such a long time,” she pointed out. “Nobody is supposed to reveal what’s behind the curtain.”

This might explain the actions of Hasbrook, the unpaid Marc Jacobs model, who recanted her complaints after her Tumblr post went viral (thanks to Sauers’ posts about it on Jezebel), in terms so affectless they sounded like the videotaped confession of a POW: “I loved working and doing looks for Marc Jacobs. It was actually one of the favorite jobs I have had so far,” she wrote. “I actually preferred to be paid in trade … There was an entire room filled with clothes and shoes that I was asked to choose from. Everything was amazing.”

In her comments at the Girl Model screening, Harvard researcher Briana Goodale helped explain Hasbrook’s flip-flop. (A paper she co-authored, Why peers reject whistleblowers: a social cognitive examination, won a grant from the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and has established her as something of an authority on the subject.)

“What we found during our two years of research is that it takes a pretty significant amount of wrongdoing for people inside your own peer circle not to dismiss you as a tattletale,” she said.

“You actually end up attributing traits to people who are whistleblowers, depending on the level of ‘badness’ they dealt with. For example, if you take two underage models, and one speaks up about being sexually molested by a photographer, and the other speaks up about being kept past certain hours on a school night, we found that people attribute positive personality traits to the person who spoke up about the really, really bad thing. On the other hand, people will associate negative traits to the person who spoke up about staying late … that they’re a tattletale.”

The fear of being blacklisted is so ingrained in the fashion world that only one person still working in the business agreed to speak to The Observer on the record. Supermodel Shalom Harlow is on the board of the Model Alliance. In 2007, the 33-year-old was named one of the top 15 highest-earning models in the world. (She also was the first-ever winner of Vogue/VH1’s Model of the Year, an award we honestly thought was made up for Zoolander.)

“At this stage in my career, I may not have to worry whether I’ll be paid for a job, or if I’m going to be properly fed, or if someone is going to be sexually inappropriate toward me, but I’m the exception,” she told us by phone.

“Unless you are in that minority, there is no protection, no recourse. You could try to go through your agency, but oftentimes those agencies are the perpetrators. Until the Model Alliance, that is,” she added. “Now at least there is the beginning of some systematic order for change.”

It seems to be working. When Vogue announced in May that it would no longer be using underage models in its editorials, which pay approximately $150 (so now only lucky girls aged 16 and up will be considered), it was thanks in part to a CFDA and Model Alliance partnership. The group also holds workshops like “The Business of Modeling,” in which board member Doreen Smalls—an adjunct professor at the Fashion Law Institute, who taught the first-ever course in Fashion Modeling Law—gives members advice on how to read contracts and negotiate with agencies.

But while most everyone The Observer spoke to was supportive of the Model Alliance’s goals, some were doubtful about the group’s chances at achieving massive reform.

“I just think what [Sara Ziff] is doing is very quixotic,” said Michael Gross, author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women (William Morrow & Co., 1995). “She’s tilting at windmills. Because when you have a 14-year-old modeling, the problem isn’t the agencies. The problem isn’t the fashion magazines. It’s not Marc Jacobs. The problem is the parents. What kind of idiot parent lets their 14-year-old go off to a big city to model without being on top of them?”

Perhaps, but if the industry weren’t ready to take advantage of poor parenting, its consequences wouldn’t be so destructive. As we finish another Fashion Week, again marked by waifish girls who looked—though, fingers crossed, weren’t—prepubescent, tottering down Lincoln Center’s runways, it seems impossible to imagine that until recently there was so little oversight governing the role these young swans play in the multibillion-dollar apparel trade.

Still, as one model management veteran sniffed, “What model wouldn’t want to work for Marc Jacobs? He can make your career!”

Nonetheless, The Observer learned that Jacobs’ company adopted a new policy for this Fashion Week. According to a rep for the designer, “all model agencies [were] made aware” that the young women who stomped down the runway were offered a choice: They were paid either in trade or in monetary compensation.

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